The STEAM-Active (Project Number: 2021-1-ES01-KA220-HED-000032107) project is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

What are we talking about when we talk about STEM education? A review of literature

Partners' Institution
University of the Basque Country
Year of publication
Educational stage
Secondary Level, University Level
Journal name
Science Education
Thematic Area
Definition and characteristics of STEAM
This review summarizes its revision with these 5 main conclusions:
1. The theoretical framework tends to be inconsistent due to the lack of definition of STEM education. This makes it difficult to understand for those who are new to this methodology. However, it seems that this lack of definition is changing lately.
2. Talking about STEM education does not always imply that it has actually been applied, as there are cases in the literature where it only focuses on one of the disciplines.
3. The level of detail in explaining integration and context is poor, which makes it difficult to understand the intervention in each study.
4. STEM education has multiple cognitive, procedural and attitudinal benefits.
5. The key issues in designing an intervention are: where, how, for whom and under what conditions it will be delivered.
Ultimately, in light of the debate around STEM education, we must advocate for the unification of terms and the adoption of visions of STEM education that converge in a simultaneous study of the four STEM disciplines, avoiding views that may deviate from their essence. In this way, conceiving STEM education as "a teaching approach that integrates specific science, technology, engineering and mathematics content and skills" could contribute to dispel those doubts that commonly arise for educators and researchers when they talk about STEM.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
Bybee (2013) explained the paradox about the lack of a homogeneous definition and theoretical framework on STEAM education. Considering that, after analyzing the articles from 2013 to 2018, the definition selected by the authors’ is the following: STEM education is the integration of discipline-specific content and skills into the teaching-learning process.
Regarding the contexts in which the learning process is developed, there are also different perspectives:
1) National academy of Sciences (2014) explains that contexts that involve complex phenomena or situations through tasks that require students to use knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines, so context should be the backbone of STEM education.
2) Bryan, Moore, Johnson, and Roehrig (2015) puts forward three different paths: (a) simultaneously develop multiple learning objectives from the diverse STEM knowledge areas; (b) significantly cover content from some areas as support for developing the learning objectives involved in the main area to be worked on; (c) start out from a specific context from an area of knowledge for locating learning objectives of others.
There is also a discussion about the integration levels that go from involving different disciplines without integrating them (multidisciplinarity) to diffuse the edges between disciplines (transdisciplinarity).
This article defines STEM learning as the integration of a number of conceptual, procedural, and attitudinal contents via a group of STEM skills for the application of ideas or the solving of interdisciplinary problems in real contexts. To achieve this learning, “STEM teaching” must be based on the standards of STEM curricula, creating experiences for students that allow them to develop STEM proficiency. These experiences should include participation in research, logical reasoning, and problem-solving.
In the results, 30% of the interventions analyzed were not STEM interventions, as (a) they only used the name STEM to gain recognition and pedagogical renewal or (b) there was no integration of content or procedures.
In addition, the integration of the STEM disciplines is usually accompanied by different combinations between them and the adoption of a dominant role for one of them. The useful aspects of engineering as a “hinge” discipline have already been described for connecting the other disciplines. This dominance appears to be via the employment of robotics, use of engineering design and engineering-based problems.
The use of Robotics could enhance STEM education as it has characteristics that facilitate the acquisition of skills such as enquiry, problem solving, creative and cooperative thinking and, as a result, the integration of the four disciplines. In contrast, mathematics appears to be a complex discipline to use as a backbone.
As for teaching strategies that implement enquiry or project-based learning, they have been found to have similar benefits, facilitating the integration of the four STEM disciplines and the application of acquired knowledge.
Point of Strength
The main strength of this paper is the quality of their revision, as they have reviewed the most important articles between 2013 and 2018. That enabled an in-depth analysis of the variety of STEM interpretations (definitions, integration, topics, teaching methodologies…) to finally come up with several important conclusions.
Considering that, this article stablishes the ideal baseline to summarize the previous STEM theoretical framework.
Engineering education, Mathematics education, Science education, STEM education, Systematic review, Technology education